Mar 19, 2010

One day treks in the vicinity of Muang Long (short longs)

Suspension Bridge over the Nam Long

I went to Muang Long to deliver some photos from my last visit and to take a get in shape walk for the walks I wished to do over the next couple of months.

Back home I'd been doing some jogging on the inclined treadmill at the gym and a lot of walking above 10,000 feet, but that was in the fall. The few week hiatus while traveling up from Bangkok through Southern Laos and Vientiane hadn't done me any good. I was still fat, old, and out of shape.

I knew that the trail up Phou Mon Lem is a calf pumping grind for a thousand feet, after that it tips back a little but still heads up continuously for another two thousand feet or so. I'd used this trail before, it's the most direct route to Ban Jakune Mai. I wanted to see if my legs were still up for the walk, and I wanted my guide Tui, to decide for himself what kind of shape I was in. Tui was less than enthusiastic about the hike, and kept recommending his new one day hike in the hills on the other side of the valley.
Tui maintaing a social life while on a walk

I was also trying to get used to the software on my new GPS. I bought the cheapest option from an old reliable company. The elevation function seemed pretty accurate but the part that tells one how far you have walked didn't work under the trees. Later I was to learn that the gadget could create a track of my route that I could zoom in on but it also used up the batteries.

The walk wasn't so bad, we went up a thousand feet, Tui had phone coverage to talk to his friends, and we met a fellow who. with his sons. was up getting structural bamboo for building. I don't know how many different kinds of bamboo there are, twenty, fifty, a hundred, but not all varieties are used for the same thing. The kind these folks were getting was for the rafters and joists of a building. I suspect the woody part is thicker for this species. Remember from botany class, bamboo is a monocot, like grass. They brought only one tool with them, the big knife. They used the knife to cut the thick trunks and then went into the woods for a different bamboo which they flattened and fashioned into a rope, with which they tied the bamboo together and also made a simple harness for the long drag back to town.

Lashing the notched bamboo together using another smaller piece of split bamboo

The next day we did Tui's new one day "trek" over to the Akha village Long Pha Mai and up and behind the mountain Phou Pha Kahm. I'm not crazy over the word trek but that's what every one calls a walk in South East Asia so I will too. Normally the word trek conjures up images of multi month forced marches across sub zero arctic tundra combined with burning deserts and so on.
The heavy duty steel bridge that crosses the Nam Ma
 To start we walked down through old town with all the Tai Lue houses built using the traditional style, then across the suspension bridge and through the fields to the new bridge. The suspension bridge crosses the Nam Long, the heavy duty steel bridge crosses the Nam Ma, and shortly thereafter we walked through the Akha village. Tui pointed out how the Akha had adapted many of the construction techniques of the Tai Lue. It was true, but then these were dwellings built along the road with access to electricity and concrete. The portion of the walk before the Akha village is a pleasant stroll on flat ground through rice paddies and vegetable patches.
Naiban Ban Long Pha Mai

We stopped and talked to the headman for a while and he remarked on his recent surgery. He had some kind of stomach problem and had been losing lots of weight, the doctors in the hospital at Udomxai had cut into him and done something. It's well near impossible to figure out medical problems when talking to someone in Laos. Many medical conditions that are common vocabulary in our language have no words in Lao, and Lao people have no way to describe and no familiarity with the condition. Most ailments are simply described as what part of the body. In any case the headman showed us an impressive scar above his stomach and reported he'd gained back 7 kilos already, still looked thin to me, but seemed healthy and happy.
Naiban's kids, not the laughing or fooling around as usual but rather being carefully positioned and told to stand still and stop grinning like an idiot by mom and looked at by a buncha adults. Sister especially had a difficult time keeping a straight face.

The headman was happy to have me take a photo of him and his family and then he showed me the family photo that they recently bought. Some Vietnamese merchants were going to every village and selling large prints. What they would do is take photos of individuals faces, then photoshop them onto a picture they had of models in old style Vietnamese clothing. The end product is a large (11x14) high definition photo of an Akha family dressed like a royal Vietnamese family of 150 years ago. When I return to deliver my photos I'd hope they make up in authenticity what they lack in impressiveness, but I think it's a long shot.

The trail took off from behind the Akha village and quickly gained elevation. As soon as we slipped inside the forest sound seemed to quiet and the air was noticeably cooler and wetter. The fact that the trees were on the far side of the river and that there was rough terrain to get to them has protected them ever being cut. Big trees lay where they fell, turning into the dirt from which new trees grew as they had been doing since time began. Some of the big trees must have been at least a couple hundred or more years old, hard to imagine what life was like when they were saplings. Before this part of Asia was even colonized.
Tui and Somsai
It turns out this hike and the trail were Tui's latest creation for tourism in Muang Long. Many people come to a town and want to see some forests, a river, some ethnic villages, etc. and to sleep at their own hotels at night. The entire mountain of Pha Kham and gently sloping forest behind it have been made a municipal park.
Prohibited! Logging, Burning, Hunting, Littering

 Many local officials took the maiden hike and helped establish the trail and post the "no hunting" sign, which I think is mostly for our benefit. The hike does pass through uncut forest as soon as one leaves the village. I'd imagine it would be impossible to take such a hike from Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Muang Sing, Muang Ngoi, Nong Khiaw, or even Phongsali . There are simply no old forests so close to any of those towns.
Tui on log

The walk to the top of the hill was over quickly and we walked with ease through the very tall old growth forest around the back side of the hill and out to an overlook that seemed just above the town.
Muang Long with Phou Mon Lem behind

On the way down I ask Tui about the new vegetables I saw, and he explained the benefits of squash over melons, the price of rubber and how the valley was now making money exporting to the very close border of China. China will buy anything Muang Long can grow, except damaged melons. In no time we are fording the Nam Ma below town where the water isn't so deep and making the long trudge through the fields up to the road and then back to town.
The Nam Ma in the area of the ford below Muang Long

At my room I listen to the BBC on the short wave and took a leisurely cold shower carefully washing clothes and taping up my foot which had developed a blister. Thinking back on the day I realized Tui was right. It was indeed a nice hike. The trees were large and the forest was the tall kind you don't see often close to town.  Tui having a personal connection with the headman at Ban Long Pha Mai, made me feel less a gawker, more a visitor. Maybe 8 or so kilometers, five hours.

Homphan Guest House Phou Pha Kahm on skyline



Hoo Don said...

An excellent account of your two treks and some lovely photos as well. I'm not sure if the peace and quiet of it all would suit me but it was nice to read about it.

I didn't realize there were so many different kind of bamboo trees about, but that kind of makes sense now. I would guess you shook a few pounds off on your walks and it reads like you thoroughly enjoyed them too. You made no mention of snakes, my main reason for avoiding such a pleasant pastime.

Irfan said...

Hey there Somsai, good to see that Tui is still out there in Muang Long and doing his stuff. Doesn't look like a hell of a lot has changed that much in the last few years. But good to read your stories, makes me want to go back. Cheers, Jakarta Boy

Somchai said...

Hi JB,

This was all a year ago. But an email the other day says he's getting got married. I think probably first part complete, the agreement between families, second part is the ceremony after she graduates from college.

Hope you and Mrs. JB doing fine.